March Issue 2010
In the Hot Zone
I still remember the distraught mother of a ‘child soldier’ recruited by a militant outfit who was wailing incessantly. Sitting in the courtyard of her home in Thoubal district of Manipur, an insurgency-ravaged state in northeast India, she narrated how her 12-year-old son went out to play after school and never came back. There were several children like her son who were lured on some pretext or the other and recruited by a militant outfit. The outfit later declared that these children had joined them out of their own consent!
She took me inside her sparsely decorated living room and took out his school bag and showed his books, his sketches and his colour pencils which he was so fond of. As a woman journalist reporting from a conflict-zone, I had to curb my emotions and ask the distressed woman the usual grueling questions. And I had a feeling she could see my empathy and opened up. It took her some time though.
And then came my brush with terror. The Manipur Police Commandos, notorious for their human rights abuses, surrounded the house. I could see eyes peeping through the open windows. One of their commanders came in. He started questioning the lady about me and checked my identity card, apologised and left. The commander told the lady in his native language that he thought I was a ‘mediator.’ For a moment I held my breath and heaved a sigh of relief when they left.
The person accompanying me told me that I was fortunate that they at least stopped to ask. The state is under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 which gives security forces unrestricted and unaccounted power to carry out their operations once an area is declared disturbed. Even a non-commissioned officer is granted the right to shoot to kill based on mere suspicion that it is necessary to do so in order to “maintain the public order.”
An advantage of being a journalist reporting from a conflict zone is that one gets to see both sides of the coin. And as a journalist, one has to be objective and see the other side of the story, which often is eclipsed by drab government press releases on the number of militants killed and the number of arms and ammunition recovered. I almost feel that journalists can actually act as a bridge and go to the root of the complex issues that leads a young kid barely out of his or her teens to take up an AK-47 without batting an eyelid.
It’s an irrefutable fact that journalists working in this violence-scarred region, especially in Manipur and Nagaland, are constantly flirting with danger. In a state like Manipur, where over 20 different underground outfits operate, editors have been killed by unidentified gunmen and journalists stopped from doing their jobs by militant outfits that have gone to the extent of closing down newspaper offices. Mediapersons often have to face the wrath of both the underground outfits and government agencies, including the security forces.
Reporting hardcore conflict also includes visiting militant camps, which, of course, has its share of adventure. Meeting the female cadres is an intriguing experience, but most of them are lower-rung cadres waiting to serve tea and cook lunch. For the militants, it’s an equally awe-inspiring experience to interact with a journalist and, that too, a woman. I still shudder when I recall this incident while I was on my way back from a designated camp of a militant outfit in ceasefire in Assam, another state in the region. A member of the publicity wing called me and asked me to stop wherever I was. We stopped the car at a small marketplace and waited for them to turn up. I was tense and apprehensive. Then their car steered close and one of them called me towards their car. I was stunned when he thrust an envelope in my hands. He looked very uncomfortable and asked me not to open it then as it contained some important papers. I hastily sat in my car again and started off in my journey back. Then I gradually opened the sealed envelope and to my surprise I could see a wad of notes! They had actually tried to bribe me! I somehow managed to send the envelope back and I could understand the cause of the discomfiture of the man. He did not know how to bribe a female journalist! And to think of it, he thought it was imperative to bribe me.
Militant outfits are equally media-savvy, and nowadays it is not unusual to receive emailed press releases from them. As I began to write this piece, I had been reading an emailed press release sent by a militant outfit in the region. I recall what Sunil Nath, a surrendered militant, had told me once. Nath was the publicity secretary of the United Liberation Front of Assam, ULFA in short. He told me how the militant outfits were conscious of the power of the media and the publicity wing was one of their most important wings. He recalled how in 1989, the banned outfit had first acquired its prized possession — an Apple Macintosh for a steep price of Rs 1.5 lakh from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It was kept a secret and few in the outfit knew of its existence. Prior to that, the militant groups used human couriers to deliver messages, which was not safe for them. But the internet changed things and they could break across geographical barriers to send across their message to the outside world, especially the media.
It is intriguing to report from a conflict zone, but it has its share of perils. It’s a tightrope for us ‘combat’ journalists as we have to grapple with threats from both the state and non-state actors. I had exposed a fake encounter by the state police in broad daylight in Manipur’s capital Imphal. A local photographer who was present at the site took minute-by-minute pictures of the gory incident and was petrified of publishing it in the local papers. Not caring for the scoop of a lifetime, he sent it to us and the story sparked off angry protests and a civil uprising in the state.
The story won global acclaim, but for me, doing the story was a traumatic experience. I was not just an objective journalist here but also a woman and a mother. The photographs haunted me. I had sleepless nights. It’s not just the physical dangers that we have to combat but also the psychological trauma, which often goes unnoticed. And to top it off, there are no support services for counselling a traumatised journalist. A journalist friend tells me that it’s a myth that journalists have to be tough. After all, we are human beings too and, most importantly, women.